Course:CONS200/2019/Ecological and Social Costs of Single-use Styrofoam Containers

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Example of Single Use Styrofoam Coffee Cup

Styrofoam is a light, insulating, and economically viable material commonly used for packaging products such as food. Styrofoam is also known as polystyrene and is one of the five major plastic groups mass produced and used commercially. It is no secret that the environmental implications of Styrofoam can be devastating and that it has major negative impacts on both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. In addition, Styrofoam can also have very negative effects on human health and has proven to contribute to certain types of cancer development. Despite the negative effects of Styrofoam, it is still widely used due to its minimal manufacturing costs and its antibacterial properties.

In recent years, the environmental implications of single-use Styrofoam packaging, along with other plastics, has come to light and prompted companies as well as cities to switch from using Styrofoam to environmentally friendly alternatives. Although this switch may seem like the obvious course of action, the adjustment to greener alternatives has proven difficult for many small businesses due to the increase in production cost of alternatives. The use of single use Styrofoam for packaging has both environmental and societal impacts, hence why the feasibility of a Styrofoam ban as well as finding greener alternatives will be explored in this article.

Environmental Impacts of Styrofoam

Styrofoam has begun to work its way into nature through the irresponsible management of waste.

Impacts on wildlife

Styrofoam, or polystyrene, is one of the five major classes of plastics which includes polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, nylon, and polystyrene. Styrofoam has many environmental repercussions including being the main source of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDs) found in many marine organisms[1]. Styrofoam poses a large issue for many organisms, including fungi, most animals, and mixed microbial communities living both in oceans and on land because it is non-digestible if consumed[2].

North America produces approximately 1,007,000 mt of Styrofoam for packaging of food alone, which does not account for the remaining 42% of Styrofoam packaging used for the packaging of appliances, toys, electronics, and construction supplies[3]. Much of this Styrofoam ends up in landfills or in the ocean due to careless waste management inevitably leading to consumption by many marine and terrestrial organisms. As ocean temperatures rise and food becomes scarce for many animals, the amount of polystyrene consumed will only increase. Because polystyrene is the main chemical component in Styrofoam and is non-digestible, the Styrofoam consumed by these organisms can result in major complications which often leads to death. For example, when birds participate in polystyrene consumption, their ability to absorb iron through their intestinal villi is greatly reduced when compared to birds who had not been consuming polystyrene[4].

Out of the five groups of plastics, polystyrene is the third most common microplastic polymer found in marine life, accounting for approximately 5.6% of the microplastic found in the gut[5]. Microplastic has become such an issue in marine environments that organisms are beginning to consume less of their traditional diet due to microplastics replacing large portions of their diet. It was found that when zooplankton were exposed to environments with both algae and microplastics present, the zooplankton consumed 11% fewer algae cells because they had replaced these with the consumption of microplastic[6]. The consumption of Styrofoam by animals can lead to the indirect consumption of polystyrene by humans as small particles often end up in meat.

Styrofoam and paper egg cartons which both have different environmental impacts

Costs of Production on the Environment

Styrofoam not only has large negative impacts after it has been used, but also has many environmental costs during production. When comparing the production of polystyrene egg

cups to the production of recycled paper egg cups, the polystyrene egg cups had a higher energy consumption level in fuel, natural gas, lignite, coal, and hydro electrical energy; however, compared to recycled paper egg cups, polystyrene egg cups produce half as much heavy metal and solid waste[7]. Due to the high amounts of natural gas released from the production of Styrofoam, the environment not only suffers from the after effects of Styrofoam waste, but also the production.

Polystyrene accounts for approximately 9.7% of the total plastic produced worldwide[8]. The US Environmental Protection agency reports that 2.3 million tons of Styrofoam ends up in landfills annually, but much of this polystyrene finds its way into both marine and terrestrial ecosystems[9].

Polystyrene’s negative environmental impacts are no secret, however, in a society driven by cheap consumerism, the use of polystyrene seems to be the most economically viable option for many companies.

Societal Implications of Styrofoam

Socioeconomic Impacts

An example of one of the many important uses of styrofoam in the packaging industry. Using packing peanuts is one way to ensure the safety of the contents of a box during travel[10].

The Styrofoam industry provides jobs for many people. Stevan Allen, a writer at PRWeb, is a critic of Senate Bill 568 in California, which is a proposed ban on all foam products in the state. He states that an estimated 8,000 jobs would be lost as a result of a total styrofoam ban in California[11]. Allen also argues that the bill will do nothing to reduce pollution and only take away jobs from individuals. In 2016, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada reported that the polystyrene foam product manufacturing industry in Canada generates about $2.1 million in revenue[12]. This is a large number that could be negatively affected by any sort of ban on polystyrene products.

Styrofoam is also seen as a cost-effective method of securing packaged items in boxes[10]. Many companies use styrofoam to immobilize products shipped out in boxes with either fitted pieces of packaging peanuts so the product is not damaged while it is being transported. Therefore, if a ban was implemented, shipping costs could increase, thus impacting things such as online shopping.

Health Impacts

Styrofoam is widely used in the food industry. It is seen as a cost-effective method of distributing food and packing up leftovers in restaurants, which contributes towards its popularity among businesses. However, studies have concluded that Styrofoam negatively impacts public health, as it is primarily composed of carcinogens such as benzene and styrene[13]. Besides the increased risk of cancer from exposure to carcinogens, other detrimental health effects can include the development of neurological problems[14]. Additionally, an average of 9,000 manufacturing workers are estimated to be exposed to styrene annually during the production of polystyrene, making them vulnerable to the problems listed above[13]. The EPA states that these workers have a much higher change of developing chronic problems due to long-term exposure to styrofoam, some of which are headache, fatigue, weakness, and depression[15].

Styrofoam byproducts can be released into the environment during production. Not only does this negatively impact animals, it deteriorates the state of our own respiratory systems.

Routes of Entry

There are several ways that the chemicals in Styrofoam can enter and harm the body. Styrofoam is known to leach chemicals into food and drinks, especially when they are hot. The study found that "hot water was found to be contaminated with styrene and other aromatic compounds." Moreover, the concentration of styrene in the liquid stored in the styrofoam container for the study "increased to 69.53 microg/L after [a year of] storage"[16]. Therefore, not only does styrofoam present an immediate hazard when using it with food and drink at high temperatures, it contaminates its contents when used as a container for long-term storage.

Another way for styrofoam to enter the body is through the respiratory system. In its pure form, styrene is a liquid and can be turned into vapour, which can then be breathed in, which is a problem that workers in the styrofoam manufacturing industry have to face[15]. Similarly, although this method does not directly introduce the styrene compound into your body through the respiratory system, burning styrofoam and inhaling the fumes released is extremely harmful. When aflame, styrofoam releases chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and carbon black, which can lead to the development of chronic problems as mentioned earlier[17].

Alternatives to Styrofoam Containers

New Policies to ban Styrofoam

New York City adopts new policies to ban single-use Styrofoam containers

Major cities like New York City have adopted new policies to disallow the usage of single-use Styrofoam containers[18]. In addition, cities like Vancouver are implementing new policies in attempt to remove the use of single-use Styrofoam containers. Starting in June 2019, the city of Vancouver is introducing a bylaw that “prohibits business license holders from serving prepared food in polystyrene foam cups and take-out containers”[19]. Due to this prohibition, businesses that are using Styrofoam containers will now have to find other alternatives for the unsustainable container they are supplying.

Alternatives to Styrofoam

Researchers think Nanowood could be an alternative for Styrofoam

Currently, many businesses are supplying biodegradable, eco-friendly compostable take-out containers as an alternative to polystyrene, but the most affordable alternative businesses use are paper products. For example, companies like Booster Juice have been serving their drinks in Styrofoam cups for many years, and with the recent switch to paper cups in 2017, the Recycle BC program allows the paper cups to be recycled which are then "turned into everyday items like tissue and toilet paper"[20].

Additionally, UBC’s residence dining halls are only supplying compostable or recyclable take-out containers while charging the customer an extra fee to make up for the price difference in supplying an eco-friendly alternative. The university also implements a reusable take-out container program while offering the customer a $0.20 discount on their meal[21]. These two alternatives provide a more sustainable method to reduce the amount of polystyrene waste created, automatically resulting in a decrease in unsustainable materials that would be used to produce the containers, and waste that would generally end up in landfills as polystyrene is very expensive to recycle[22].

Other, new alternative-developments include Nanowood, which is created from leftover scraps of wood and cheap chemicals like sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide. Although some people may worry about the negative effects of the chemicals, sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide helps remove the unwanted material of wood products, leaving cellulose which is the basis of paper[23], meaning Nanowood is not harmful. The Nanowood fibres naturally trap heat making it a great insulator that could potentially be an alternative to Styrofoam’s properties of keeping drinks warm and being lightweight. Remarkably, as Nanowood products are created from wood, the strong and sturdy product is 100% biodegradable and economically-friendly in relation to cost [24].

Although Nanowood sounds like a great, new alternative, currently, businesses are geared towards using paper products (made with new or post-consumer items), or compostable containers made with plants. In conclusion, from the new policies cities are adopting, it prohibits businesses using their current unsustainable product with more costly, but sustainable eco-friendly single-use containers, which green alternative is up to the business itself.

Benefits of Using Alternative Containers

By using sustainable take-out containers, individuals and businesses will decrease their carbon footprint and the negative impacts they have on the planet.

As stated previously, the production of Styrofoam has detrimental impacts to humans and wildlife due to the high amounts of natural gas released from the production. With the ban of Styrofoam containers, no natural gas would be released into the atmosphere since there is nothing to produce. The use of compostable containers would benefit the environment as microorganisms would break down the container in compostable sites[25]. Since composting reduces the amount of waste that would end up in a landfill, compostable containers would help reduce waste, and this would then reduce methane emissions from landfills, improving soil quality and fertility to improve plant growth[26][27]. In the perspective of businesses, using eco-friendly take-out containers would increase the business’ image, which may attract more customers that are keen on sustainability when it comes to their buying decisions[28]. For example, many vegan restaurants in North Vancouver only supply compostable take-out containers and this helps their business' image, while providing the customers satisfaction. Overall, although the cost for eco-friendly containers are higher than Styrofoam containers, there are undoubtedly more positive impacts on the environment since air pollution reduces, soil quality and fertility increases, and individuals and businesses automatically decrease their carbon footprint.

Economical Responses to a Ban

Feasibility of a Ban on Styrofoam

The city of Seattle has already banned the use of styrofoam containers by take-out food service providers

If existing literature has already exposed the negative environmental and social costs of Styrofoam containers, why is it a challenge to eliminate them completely? In reality, although cities such as San Jose, California and Seattle, Washington have already banned usage of Styrofoam containers by take-out food service providers, it can be difficult for other cities to hop on board due to the associated challenges. For instance, a city must be able to face the tradeoff between reduced environmental impacts by eliminating Styrofoam in landfills and increased economic costs of alternative solutions. Additionally, cities must be able to access environmentally friendly alternatives and implement their usage as soon as a ban is in effect. This will pose new challenges to business owners in the foodservice industry which will be discussed below. An optimistic view is as more success is seen in cities with an imposed Styrofoam ban, it will influence more cities to impose these policies.

Economic Costs of a Ban on Styrofoam

Small businesses such as food vendors rely heavily on styrofoam containers to maximize profit. Pictured above is a food vendor in New York City.

Styrofoam containers reached their popularity in the foodservice industry due to its minimal production costs as well as antibacterial qualities for storing food and beverages. Existing alternatives are typically more expensive to produce or lacks durability to store foods for long periods of time.

A study conducted in New York City, where a Styrofoam ban has been implemented, demonstrates the estimated cost to replace Styrofoam food and drink containers with the lowest-cost alternative is $91.3million. This increases the effective minimum average cost by 94%. In order words, for every dollar spent on Styrofoam containers, businesses and consumers in New York City must spend at least $1.94 on alternative replacements. This 94% environmental tax is far higher than any current sales tax or import duty rates affecting the cost of consumer products[29].

A ban this scale affects all food service businesses, specifically targeting businesses with low-profit margins who are less able to absorb the cost increase[29].This includes typically street vendors and restaurants who are typically run by minorities. It is expected that 2000 jobs and $400 million in economic activity are eliminated in New York alone[30]. As a result, small businesses, mostly mom-and-pop shops and bodegas, have signed a petition calling on the city mayor to reverse the ban on Styrofoam containers as it will “hurt their bottom lines”[31].

In California, under proposed Assembly Bill 1358, restaurants, retail food vendors and state facilities would be authorized to use compostable containers or recyclable plastic, or paper products made from 100% recycled material. Restaurant owners mostly agree with environmental and social incentives; however, they point out the expensive nature of green alternatives. As a result, these business owners could face reduced profits unless actions such as increasing menu prices are taken. Additionally, many argued that some compostable and biodegradable products have a tendency to melt when exposed to hot foods [32]. Therefore, the actual cost of this switch for restaurant and business owners will likely be higher, in order to ensure the replacement product can deliver equivalent performance in the market[29]. Although, activists are optimistic that a statewide ban would immediately create a market for green disposables, therefore lowering its production costs dramatically[32]. At the same time, a major demand spike generated by a city such as New York City can cause increased prices and possibly shortages of alternative product materials, at least in the short term[29].

Styrofoam recycling facilities can often be very costly and uncommon in many municipal regions.

The overall economic impacts will vary by individual business, grocery stores have more control over these price changes whereas restaurant price changes are restricted to changing menus. Although it is difficult to measure the elasticity of demand, a slight decrease in demand is to be expected

Costs of a Styrofoam recycling program

As an alternative solution to a complete ban on Styrofoam products, recycling programs can be implemented if nearby facilities are available. For instance, the City of San Diego launched a new Styrofoam recycling system at the annual cost of $90,000. This is due to costs involved in transporting Styrofoam containers to a specific sorting facility in Los Angeles County since it is not processable at regular recycling facilities. This policy was imposed due to pushes from Styrofoam production companies such as Dart Container Corporation to continue manufacturing their products[33].


With increasing pressures on the environment as well as the changing climate, it is important to explore economically viable alternatives to single use Styrofoam. Even with the increasing knowledge of the impacts and detrimental effects of single use Styrofoam on both the environment and on human health, companies continue to use Styrofoam due to its cheap production costs and its antibacterial properties. The efforts of major American cities such as New York City, San Jose, and Seattle are setting an example for many others by taking significant steps in the fight against Styrofoam. Although the ban may seem to be an obvious solution to the problem, issues such as cost and finding viable alternatives to styrofoam has proven to be a challenge. Nanowood and recycled paper products are both currently the best solutions because they provide promising results in reducing the amount of carbon emissions from styrofoam production and usage. Studies in the future should focus on finding either an alternative which is as cheap or cheaper than Styrofoam or a way to reduce the amount of Styrofoam in the environment, such as implementing Styrofoam recycling facilities in all recycling plants.


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